I’ve had several periods during my life when I’ve made a real effort to reduce my spending on consumer goods. Buying stuff is bad for the environment, and it’s not good for the wallet either. Almost everything we buy used electricity to make it, used ungodly amounts of water, contributed to water and air pollution, came in packaging that will go to landfill, was often shipped here from another country, driven to our city on a truck… you get the picture. Much of what is available in shops in Australia is also made by people working in miserable conditions. Every time we buy something, we are sending a message to the manufacturer saying “Great – please make another!” And just as we need to reduce our electricity use by turning off lights when we aren’t using them, and unplugging appliances at the powerpoint, we also need to reduce our “virtual” use of resources – that is the resources used to manufacture the things we buy. If this seems obvious, my apologies – it took me quite a while to “get” this particular point, and to connect my buying as clashing with my desire to live sustainably.
I read a great book called Affluenza, which examines the way we spend our money in Australia, and it included quite a few tidbits of eye-opening information for me. The authors point out that the government says we’ve had a good year if we’ve experienced economic growth – that is, if we as a society spent more money than we spent the year before. The only measure of “success” is this – financial – there is no attempt to measure wellbeing, health, contentment or other indicators of a successful society. Similarly, on a personal level, most Australians aspire to financial growth – ie to earn more than we do currently, to own more or more expensive stuff, and to move into a bigger house in a better area when possible. This attitude that “growth is good” forms the backbone of our lives, for most of us.
The government and the marketplace work hard to establish this attitude and keep us operating this way. Much of the message is achieved through advertising. Advertisers, rather than giving us factual information about a product, strive to make us feel discontent with our current situation, and aim to build anxiety and uncertainty, which leads to buying more.
Interestingly, although most Australians believe our society is too consumerist and too materialistic, most of us believe that we as individuals are not, and that we have barely enough money to meet our basic needs. This holds true regardless of how much we earn: most Australians have come to see luxuries as basic necessities, and we deny that our purchases are materialistic. Advertisers capitalise on this, by telling us “You deserve it”, whether it’s a holiday we can’t afford or a fashionable piece of clothing.
When large corporations worried that we might stop spending, they introduced the credit card, so that we could spend money we hadn’t even earnt yet. The convenience of the credit card has led to a culture of instant gratification, which will have to be paid for later. Australians pay for their debts by working longer hours than workers in any other country in the world. These long work hours are causing individuals numerous problems – relationship breakdowns, children who long for more time with their parents, depression, fatigue, ill health, and an obsession with money. Even though most Australians would like more time with their family and friends, this goal is often deferred until later in life (generally retirement), while long hours are put in now to pay for luxurious “basic necessities”.
Almost one quarter of Australian adults, however, have decided to step outside of this cultural model, and “downshift”. Lacking public role models for this, we each operate in isolation, often with the disapproval of those around us, despite the fact that so many of us are doing it. Downshifting means working less hours, working for less pay, and/or consciously consuming less than before. While the income drop can be challenging, especially at first, 90% of downshifters end up with less stress, more time for meaningful activities, better community networks and participation, less anxiety – and the obsession with money generally melts away.
That, in a nutshell, is what I understood from the book. Wow – one quarter of us are downshifting – and there’s no mention of it in the media or anything to help us realise how common our actions are. My readership on this blog has skyrocketed since I started blogging about living sustainably – so it seems there is interest out there.
After making a strict budget for myself for consumer goods one year, I found I didn’t want to spend it on things like socks, undies, watches and so on. So my biggest challenge was to find a way to meet as many of my basic needs as possible in a way that doesn’t involve buying anything new. Op shops meet a lot of my needs.
A few tips for not buying stuff:
- stay out of shops and shopping centres.
- don’t read magazines (or if you do be very strict and avoid looking at the ads).
- don’t watch ads on TV.
- if you catch yourself fantasising about various new things you might like to own, try to nip it in the bud and think about something else.
- focus on being happy with what you have, and making do with stuff you have on hand or can find.
- go to op shops and maintain a running list of items you are watching out for.
- try borrowing from a friend instead of buying.
- make stuff (from second hand materials), and give gifts that are homemade or provide an experience or service (a gift voucher to a restaurant, to a bath house, a massage voucher). Or give plants, ideally some you’ve raised yourself, preferably in a pot you didn’t buy new.
And a few tips from readers:
- make use of your local library rather than buying books
- take a good look at why want to shop – are you avoiding something or trying to fulfill an emotional need?
Please send in any more tips! Thanks to those who already did. Read the comments for more insights 🙂
So what about you, is there anything you’re not buying? Have you found any solutions for the ordinary, every day things we “need”?